Washington congratulates itself on speeding up dangerous Russian-American non-proliferation project

Publish date: January 3, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK - It was all smiles at the National Nuclear Security Administration on Wednesday as the US agency responsible for realising the long delayed Russian American bilateral Plutonium Disposition Agreement of 2000 announced both sides would be speeding things up to dispose of surplus weapons grade plutonium.

Bellona strongly opposes the plutonium disposition plan as it currently stands and calls on both governments to reconsider immobilising surplus weapons plutonium in a manner that truly secures the plutonium and does not expose the world to further risks of catastrophic nuclear accidents and a spike in plutonium proliferation hazards.

Nonetheless, the Department of Energy (DOE) and its nuclear subdivision NNSA took time out to pat themselves on the back for recent advances in the programme.

The US mixed oxide, or MOX ,fuel fabrication plant is "now 25 percent complete," the NNSA said in a statement late last month. The agency said that construction of the plant at the DOE’s Savannah River site in Aiken, South Carolina, is moving at a “brisk pace” and involved 1,000 workers.

"I am pleased with the recent progress we are seeing both here and in Russia on our joint effort to reduce surplus plutonium from nuclear weapons and weapons programs," said William Tobey, NNSA’s deputy administrator for defence nuclear non-proliferation in an email interview with Bellona Web.

"It is important that our countries continue to work together on our agreement to dispose of enough plutonium for at least 17,000 nuclear weapons."

This is the equivalent of 34 metric tons of weapons grade plutonium in each country. But this has been criticised as being a mere flash in the pan by many environmentalists and non-proliferation experts. The United States has declared that it has a total surplus of 100 metric tons of plutonium. Russia has not declared officially how much it has, but most estimates indicate Moscow is sitting of a surplus of about 150 metric tons of plutonium.

Disposition method dangerous and expensive
The primary vehicle by which this surplus plutonium will disposed of is in mixed-oxide or MOX fuel, which incorporated both plutonium and uranium. Cheaper and far more effective options for disposing of the plutonium have been forwarded and rejected.

Though MOX fuel has been in use in Europe for many years – a practice they employ to dispose of commercial grade plutonium that is a by-product of burning uranium – no country has ever mixed weapons grade plutonium with uranium and the outcome of burning such a potent mixture as fuel is uncertain.

The means by which the long delayed and largely technically inept programme will be sped up is by using fast neutron reactors in Russia – reactors that both run on plutonium and produce plutonium as waste. In the United State, surplus plutonium is slated to be burned in retrofitted commercial reactors in the US states of North Carolina and South Carolina. In both countries, the former weapons plutonium will be used to produce power.

The NNSA’s shiny statement indicated that the MOX programme “will generate enough clean energy to power roughly one million households for 50 years.”

Russia will realise its plutonium dream
The Russians, who have long been anxious to get their plutonium reactor programme off the drawing board and into the field , had initially been rebuffed by previous US administrations who refused to allow the use of technologically unstable fast neutron reactors. The programme, to the satisfaction of many scientists and environmentalists, ran aground in 2003 on the shoals of this discord and a host of other bureaucratic and technical disagreements and the project was informally but firmly shelved

In 2006, however, the programme was given a rebirth as the joint Russian-American Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) formally dropped its opposition to the use of fast neutron reactors.

What US taxpayers will finance
The United State will therefore be severely contradicting long-standing US nuclear policy at US taxpayer expense in order to continue the plutonium disposition programme on a MOX fuel basis.

The revived MOX disposition programme willl both underwrite the retrofitting of Russia’s existing BN-600 fast neutron reactor and finance the building of the as-yet experimental BN-800 reactor from scratch.

The programme will also pay $200 m toward building a Russian MOX fabrication plant, which can also be used to produce pure plutonium fuel. According to the NNSA, the BN-600 reactor, in Beloyarsk, Russia will be ready to start consuming weapons grade plutonium by 2012.

The BN-800 is currently undergoing construction at the same site.

With the recent consolidation of Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear agency, into a gigantic state-run nuclear monopoly encompassing all elements of the fuel cycle – from uranium mining to weapons to oversight – Russia has promised to build two reactors a year between now and 2030.

Many of these are now bound to be fast neutron reactors, which both run on plutonium and produce it as waste that can then be used again as fuel. Though the new plutonium disposition agreement with Russia included provisos that the BN600 will be retrofitted in such a way that it does not produce weapons usable plutonium in its spent nuclear fuel, this agreement does not extend to other reactors Russia will be building in the future.

The hallmark of the US policy against assisting Russia in building fast neutron reactors and moving toward a closed plutonium fuel cycle was President Jimmy Carter’s refusal in the 1970s to do the same in the America. The Carter administration and those that followed considered the risk of keeping plutonium in great stocks at nuclear power plants – which are not fortified like military nuclear sites – was far too great a temptation to would-be terrorists.

Now, in the post 9/11 world, where fears of nuclear terrorism are an international preoccupation, the United States will be, in a turn of bitter irony, helping add to the proliferation problem in a country that already has glaring nuclear security gaps under the aegis of making the world more secure against nuclear terrorism.

Added to this is the fact that the new shape of the plutonium disposition programme has thus far made no mention of how the plutonium produced by the fast neutron reactors that are supposed to be disposing of it will itself be disposed of as waste.